Pentagon Channel Marks First Year on the Air
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 20, 2005 Broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Pentagon Channel is a unique source of military news for servicemembers and their families around the world and a growing number of civilians stateside.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld talks with Air Force Master Sgt. Sean Lehman of the Pentagon Channel during a live broadcast May 20 from the Joint Service Open House at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Photo by Maj. Francisco G. Hamm, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
That was not always the case, however. A year go this month, the Pentagon Channel began operation with just a few short news spots produced in-house.
"What had existed for some time as a closed-circuit feed of a few news programs to the Pentagon cable system ... was very quickly spun up into a national TV channel," Chas Henry, the Pentagon Channel's executive producer, said. "It's amazing what they've accomplished in (a year)."
Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs (internal communications and public liaison), echoed this sentiment.
"The Pentagon Channel team has exceeded our expectations in several ways," Barber said. "One, we have cultivated a fabulous team of military broadcasters. What has really just wowed me is the talent on the Pentagon Channel in the way of our military."
She said she's also pleased with the content, which she describes as "able to stand up against any news channel."
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Gray, a broadcast journalist with the Pentagon Channel, arrived six months prior to the channel's launch. She said it's an honor to be involved with something from its very roots.
She said the organization was much smaller when she signed on, and that this presented a challenge for the two managers and four broadcasters running the show. To top it all off, she said, some of the things the Pentagon Channel does were completely new to that founding group.
"It was a huge learning curve for everybody. But I think especially being in the military, faced with a challenge like that, we were all just kind of gung ho," she said. "To go from four news minutes a day to learning how to fill 24 hours of airtime has been challenging."
Gray, who anchors "Around the Services," a daily half-hour show featuring military news from all of the services, said it's interesting to see what people can accomplish when given the resources.
An episode of "Recon," a monthly 30-minute documentary program, solidified the Pentagon Channel's reality for Marine Cpl. Brian Buckwalter.
"That Recon that features (posthumous Medal of Honor recipient Army) Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, that blew me away," he said. "That could go on network television as is, right now, tonight."
Buckwalter anchors the "Studio 5" program, a weekly show that gives top Defense Department leaders a venue to talk about top military issues.
To grow into what the Pentagon Channel is today, a lot had to happen, Henry said. To start, he said, the staff needed to cultivate sufficient, attractive, nonrepetitive content. The staff has been beefed up to 58, and now includes a solid mix of military and civilian broadcasters. This mix has been beneficial, according to the military broadcasters.
"Brining in all the civilian people that we have from the civilian media who've all worked for the network news stations has just made a huge difference," Gray said.
Air Force Tech Sgt. Daniela Marchus finds that mix very different from what she's used to as a military broadcaster. "The mix of commercial broadcast people and military broadcast people has been a whole new thing for me," she said. "We're all teaching each other so many different things. As a (military) producer, I've always been responsible for the entire creative process," Marchus, a producer-reporter with the Pentagon Channel special programs department, said. She currently works on "Recon."
The good experiences don't stop there, though. Because of the channel's unique aspect, the broadcasters often are presented with unparalleled opportunities that commercial broadcasters may never have.
"Military broadcasters (at the Pentagon Channel) get to experience things that other broadcasters in the military wouldn't," Army Sgt. Lee McMahon, a broadcast journalist with the Pentagon Channel, said. "You get to learn from those in the commercial (broadcast) world and interview top defense leaders and do things that are outside the realm of typical military broadcasting."
Gray found herself in just such a position when she learned her interview schedule included a sit-down with first lady Laura Bush. "If you had told me two years ago that I'd be interviewing Laura Bush, I'd have said you were out of your mind," she said.
Not all opportunities present themselves in the form of an interview, however.
Buckwalter, who got his start in broadcasting at American Forces Network-Okinawa, Japan, had been in a print journalism position at Henderson Hall, a headquarters battalion near the Pentagon, before being offered the position at the Pentagon Channel. It was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
"My first love is broadcasting," he said. "I looked at (the Pentagon Channel) as an opportunity to come and learn, honestly. It's a job I never thought I would have."
He and the rest of the Pentagon Channel staff will get the chance to keep right on learning as the channel continues to grow. Barber said the future holds more live Pentagon Channel Reports, the possibility of "video on demand" for cable customers and even worldwide Pentagon Channel bureaus.
In some locations the channel will partner with military services. In others it will augment what might be a small broadcast capability, and some geographic locations will feature a full Pentagon Channel bureau.
Another possibility for the Pentagon Channel is making it possible for viewers to receive programming on their cell phones.
Barber said the channel owes it to the nation's men and women in uniform to explore every technical opportunity and advancement.
"When you think about it, our men and women in the military deserve the best," Barber said. "So our standards should be higher than anybody else's, because our audience is more important. I feel like our team has really stepped up to the challenge.
"We take it seriously. 'Serving Those Who Serve' is not just a tagline for us," she said. "It's really what we believe every day."
At the end of the day, Barber said, the Pentagon Channel staff wants its unique audience to seek out what McMahon described as "the most unique military broadcasting outlet in the world" for its news fix.